UPDATE (What happens!): Amanda gets her dad! Marc gets Troy and a promotion! Betty gets a career! Daniel gets Betty? Sure, I’ll buy it. And Wilhelmina (finally) gets to be editor-and-chief of Mode — and a boyfriend (Connor Owens)! More on the finale below.
THE UGLY BETTY FINALE: In the end, the show sought to correct the awkward dynamics described below: even though Betty and Wilhelmina (the women of color) were the hardest workers and the most capable, their entitled bosses/enemies (the Meades) retained the power. Now in the finale, Betty finale got her dream job (which, by the way, is a fantasy, “New Yorker for young people”? Ha!), and Wilhelmina finally took over the reins at Mode. Meanwhile, Daniel realized, as he had before, he’s entitled and has never really earned anything.”I got this job because it was handed to me, but you’ve earned it,” Daniel told Wilhelmina. And so he travels to London to do….Lord knows what. In a cute twist of fate, Betty asks him to send her a resume for an assistant job. Sadly, the two decide to go on a date. Whatever, at least we didn’t have to see them lock lips.
All in all, an unsurprising but satisfying end. While the show corrected its apparent imbalance — Betty/Wilhelmina vs. Daniel/Claire — it still fits within a very satisfying and comfortable narrative of American success. If you work hard and have a good attitude, you will make it. And that’s fine. Not always true, but fine.
One more thing: they stole Sex and the City‘s finale shot! I’d predicted this last week, but didn’t write about it: the show would pair off Betty but make sure the last shot of the show was of her walking off into the city, independent. (Although my colleague Khadijah tells me Betty does “look back” at Daniel in the aerial shot). I’m a sucker for young people getting great careers in glamorous cities, so you know I’m not complaining.
She’s Wilhelmina Slater and she doesn’t get wet! What to do with Wilhelmina, the competent black woman who can’t make it to the top?
ORIGINAL (written a week before the finale): Ugly Betty‘s series finale is on Wednesday! There are some big questions to be answered: Will Mark end up with silver fox Bryan Batt and Amanda start her business? Will Betty’s new job pan out? Will she take off her glasses and complete her makeover? Will she — in a somewhat regrettable plot twist — end up with Daniel?
But for me the biggest question isn’t about the show’s eponymous character, it’s about its most interesting one: Will they kill off Wilhelmina?
So far, it looks like a “no.” Wilhelmina did get shot last night, but it appeared below-the-waist, at worst, in the gut. But still, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched for the primetime soap to kill off the villain. For me the possible death of Wilhelmina reveals her somewhat awkward placement within the show. (UPDATE: Ugh, Ausiello spoils: “Amanda has a question answered that’s been looming since Season 2, Justin has a dream come true, and Wilhelmina quite possibly has the happiest ending of all.” Well, I spent, like, 45 minutes on this post, so I’m not changing a thing.)
Broadcast TV has had its diva-villains before — Alexis Carrington, anyone! — but Wilhelmina, for me, is a curious case. On the one hand, the show started out portraying Vanessa Williams’ character as the “magazine-diva-bitch,” a type we know well from TV and movie history (Bette Davis in June Bride, most recently Meryl Streep in Devil Wears Prada; of course, Anna Wintour in real life). It’s often the best role an actress can get, and it breathed life back into Williams’ career.
Then it got complicated. Soon Wilhemina became a person, making her impending death a tragedy, not a fitting end.
Early on, Betty seemed unable to keep the show in the camp/telenovela style (with clear heroes and villains, exaggerated storylines, etc). Instead,with the amount of screen time she was getting, Wilhelmina needed to be “fleshed out.” She was given her own storylines revealing her troubles, starting with her bitter daughter and crazy sister. This was mostly to make the plot more interesting, but it also served to make Wilhelmina more “real” and sympathetic. Wilhelmina finally got a love life, and we learned, as we did in Devil Wears Prada, how hard it is at the top. Wilhelmina’s shift correlated with a proliferating softness on Ugly Betty: every character was given a chance to “shine.”
One of the most important things we learned about Wilhelmina was her past as Wanda Vivian Slater, a dowdy nobody with no future in fashion. Wilhelmina had to transform herself into a scheming diva in order to get ahead. She once was Betty! Now we can identify with her!
But this process, likely a necessary outcome of American primetime broadcast television’s resistance to camp, also did something else: it underscored Wilhelmina’s outsider status and made us feel sorry for her.
After all, why shouldn’t she run Mode? She’s better at it than anyone else, especially Daniel. She’s spent decades working up the ranks and building connections. She literally transformed herself and sacrificed her personal life to get there. And just when she’s about to reach the top, it gets snatched away by an entitled playboy! Wilhelmina’s backstory and life struggles took away from her away juicy role as the villain, making us care — or at least me and a few other people — about why she acts the way she does. It isn’t just that she’s careerist. It’s that she never got to be Miranda Priestly.
Now, my point. The show’s earnest turn opened up a not-so-funny debate: what options are there for a black woman to run a media conglomerate? Wilhelmina shines as the sassy diva, but it also singles her out. She’s on the outside trying to get in, make it to the top. Since we feel a bit sorry for her, or at least understand where she’s coming from, this puts the show in the awkward position of making Daniel and his mother, who are also sympathetic, merely rich people who want to maintain their dynasty. In these economic times, I think we’d rather cheer for the underdog.
The writers have given themselves some padding, to be sure. Wilhelmina’s rich and well-connected father (a senator) doesn’t make her story rags-to-riches, just ugly-to-glamorous, which is not quite as endearing. Also, her schemes are so villainous and evil it does encourage us to forget about the softer side of Willy.
Still, by the penultimate episode, she’s seen the err in her ways and saved Claire’s life, so what can the writers do? If Wilhelmina lives, it’s not that funny, more tragedy: she’ll forever be the outsider locked out of a dynastic, corporate Manhattan. If she dies, the show is merely kicking her aside because she’s inconvenient.
In my opinion, Wilhelmina should live, but her scheme to get shares of Mode should somehow work, giving her control over the magazine. Claire Meade is fine; she’s rich. Daniel, who doesn’t really seem invested in the magazine, can move to London to be with Betty — even though I think their romance is preposterous.
Will Willy live? Tune in next week!